All this rubbish Powerpoint must be telling us something

Chris Heathcote’s abstract pointillist Powerpoint toolkit once again reinforces the received wisdom that Microsoft’s near-ubiquitous presentation software presages the end of civilisation.

Unlike the army of total Powerpoint rejecters, Chris’ solution is to fight pixel with pixel, subject to three strictures:

POINT ONE: Presentations are about IDEAS, not TEXT.

POINT TWO: READING from SLIDES is a heinous crime.

POINT THREE: PEOPLE cannot COPE without some kind of visual STIMULATION.

I love the abstract toolkit and hope one day to try this parlour-game in a work context (but not, I promise, at the forthcoming Mobile Internet Portal Strategies conference for which I’m preparing this week.)

However, it set me wondering: if Powerpoint sucks so badly, how come so many people use it? And how come they use it the way they do – densely textual, reading from slides, as a substitute for eye-contact between presenter and audience? It’s not like Steve Ballmer has issued a decree forcing people to do it this way – in fact it’s the reverse: our sucky cut-and-paste Powerpoint culture is the ultimate product of co-creation.

So rather (or at least as well as) decrying rubbish slideware, how about we spend some time trying to understand the deep needs that drive people to it in the first place, and how they might be met better some other way. I don’t have all the answers, but here at least are a few of the forces at work:

  1. You need cue cards – but the 80GSM A4 stock in printers doesn’t cut it. In the old days speakers had palm-sized index cards with hand-written notes, but (a) you won’t find them in the office stationary cupboard any more (I know, I checked), and (b) have you tried to read my hand-writing? I went to school in the Seventies, you know. Result: the cue cards are no longer in the speaker’s hand, they’re up for everyone to see on the big screen.
  2. Your audience speaks a different language – when presenting to people who don’t share the same first language, sending the slides round beforehand isn’t just an administrative nicety, it’s a necessity so that they can make sense of proceedings at their own pace. Powerpoint is to business what subtitles are to art-house cinema.
  3. Your audience is only paying partial attention – gone are the days when the whole family would gather round to listen to a Malcolm Muggeridge lecture on the wireless. These days you’re lucky if anyone peeks up from their laptops and Blackberrys long enough to read a few bullet points, let alone actually listen to a complete sentence, with sub-clauses and everything.
  4. Your audience is somewhere else entirely – and in this respect i’n’t the internet brilliant! Chris Heathcote’s modern-day ink-blot test has had almost 4000 views on Slideshare in just four days, so my bet is that more often than not, the presentation document does have to speak for itself. Who then could resist the temptation to reiterate in the slide text every major point they plan to make in person?

In new product development, we often look for “workarounds” – the sub-optimal things that people do as a way of achieving their goals, then we think about how we might help them achieve these goals more elegantly, with less effort. Where are the innovations that meet the subtle communications needs of the Powerpoint-challenged? They must be out there somewhere, but they probably don’t look like presentation software at all.

2 thoughts on “All this rubbish Powerpoint must be telling us something

  1. Powerpoint itself is not the culprit; it’s the people who create the bad presentations. You can use Powerpoint well and really add extra value to a presentation as long as you remember you are the presentation and the slides are just there to support you (or be “the visual stimulation”).

    Maybe the reason for your points 3 & 4 is partially due to bad presentations and unreadable slides; people lose concentration or won’t even bother turning up because the norm nowadays is that the slides & the presentation will be rubbish and it’s just a waste of time to be there.

    I think presenters may have to create couple of different versions of their slides. One good and clear one to present with and another one with more descriptions to circulate to those remote participants before hand. The latter one could even double up as your handout at the end of the presentation if you don’t have time to create separate handouts.

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